Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica

Arizona Cypress - Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica
North of Cooke’s Peak
New Mexico, USA
February 17, 2016

There is a relict stand of Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica var. arizonica, just north of Cooke’s Peak.  This variety is generally known as “Rough-bark” Arizona Cypress.  North of Cooke’s Peak there is a long sloping saddle which rises to a small peak (high point on a ridge line).  It is just south of this small peak that the stand is located.  On February 17, 2016, Harley Shaw and I found two of these plants on the high slopes above the Cooke’s Peak townsite.  One (pictured above) was a mature tree, the other was much younger and stood about ten feet tall.  We did not find the relict stand because I was not diligent enough in my homework to place the stand’s (assumed) location accurately.  Because the trees we found are outliers and because they are in the proximity of mining activity there is some question about whether these two trees are natural or human plantings.  This is especially true of the older tree.  The younger tree was probably not planted by humans but may have grown from seed of the older plant.

Harley Shaw has been most helpful in providing information and access to the private correspondence referenced below.  However, he bears no responsibility for any errors made here.

Speciation Determination

Elbert Little in Names of New World Cypress (1970) noted the splitting and lumping process as it pertains to Cupressus speciation decisions (p. 431) and noted that Posey and Goggans had “suggested that there may have been one widespread species throughout the Southwest.  Environmental conditions changed faster than the species could evolve; thus the species has retreated to a few environmental niches still suitable for growth and reproduction.  Decreased population size, geographic isolation, and different selection pressures have produced enough variation so that some groves are now classified as different species.” 1

Arizona Cypress, Cupressus arizonica, was first described by Edward Lee Greene in 1882.  Little lumped five (then described) species into one in 1966, retaining Cupressus arizonica as the species name.  At page 433, Little provides the nomenclature history for the species.


And at page 436 he provides a breakdown of his speciation determination for C. arizonica:


These are the currently accepted systemic determinations.  Flora of North America notes that “bark texture and foliage features have been used to distinguish geographic varieties or segregate species.  Although bark texture may be consistent within populations, over the species as a whole there is complete intergradation between smooth and fibrous barks.” (This is a quote from James E. Eckenwalder in Flora of North America - Vol. 2.)


Species Distribution

The Sibley Guide to Trees indicates that there are two populations of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico.  The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service (and others) provided information in the range map to the right from the USGS Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center.  It indicates that the Cooke's Peak grove is the only Arizona Cypress population in New Mexico.   

The University of New Mexico Herbarium (accessed via SEINet) contains specimens of this species from three locations in the state.  Specifically: 

Several specimens including #59485, collected by J. Von Loh on May 20, 1975 in Upper Ash Canyon of the San Andres Mountains (32.65744859  -106.4612695 and 32.62689887  -106.5296113 +-15m.); #5309 collected by Kenneth Heil, Dave Anderson, and Patrick Alexander on September 9, 2010 at about the same location as J. Von Loh’s collections (32.6355333333  -106.5465166667); 

#90145 collected by J. L. Carter on November 3, 1992 along “cottage San-Bear Creek Road” at 32.80108335  -108.2952417 +-1138m in the Gila; and 

the specimens from the Cooke’s Range.  Herbarium collection #86992, #71083, and #101047 from Hadley Draw (32.56900543  -107.7251834 +-1138m.) by R. S. Peterson on 24 June 1978; and #127252 collected by Deming Gustafson on April 10, 2010, 2 miles NE of Cooks Peak, at 32.573217  -107.726267.   

At p. 440 Little notes that “Early reports of Cupressus arizonica - Greene as native in New Mexico have been questioned by recent collectors.  E. O. Wooton and Paul C. Standley (Flora of New Mexico, 35-36 1915) recorded these species from the southwestern corner of New Mexico.”  That was based on the specimens collected by Mearns as part of his work for the International Boundary Commission.  The collection sites for those specimens are in present day Mexico.  

In 1905, Theodore F. Rixon, wrote “Forest Conditions in the Gila River Forest Reserve, New Mexico” (USGS Professional Paper No. 39).  Rixon reported “a scattering of cypress” in Township 8S, Range 17W (p. 38); “with a scattering of cypress along the creeks” in Township 14S, Range 11W (p. 76); and “a few cypress” in Township 15S, Range 21W.  RSP, in private correspondence of Jan. 11, 2013, notes that Rixon’s “stand descriptions seem accurate except that I cannot find the cypress, not even by looking for cones in dry stream beds (which record all the other conifers listed).”  The J. L. Carter specimen from T17S R14W sec 28 (2nd listing above) is in the same “general area” as some of the trees reported by Rixon.


The Cooke’s Peak Grove

Little mentions the Cooke's Peak site and no others in his article.  He included two photographs taken at the Cooke's Peak grove in February 1956 by Sidney P. Gordon (ibid. pp 441-442).  Gordon was a Forest Service employee who (apparently) discovered the grove in 1954.

The University of New Mexico Herbarium has a specimen record of Cupressus arizonica in its collection, collected by RSP on 24 June 1978.  In private correspondence dated Jan. 11, 2013 he stated that the Cooke's Peak population of Arizona Cypress is “definitely a native stand with trees pre-dating European arrival.”  (Initials are used when private correspondence is referred to because the author did not intend the material to be a formal statement and did not necessarily take the steps that a formal statement would require.)

In correspondence dated Jan. 12, 2013, biologist JPH, identified at least one specimen in the Cooke's Peak Grove as “rough-barked Arizona cypress” (that would be C. a. var. arizonica).  His identification was based on a field visit to the site of “a smallish stand of these trees growing on the top and north sides of the east-west ridge north of Hadley Draw in the Cooke’s Range of Luna County, New Mexico, probably centered at about T20S R8W Section 18 and concentrated at elevations ranging from 7000 to 7450 feet above sea level.  As far as I am aware, the location of this grove of cypresses was most recently discovered by” AS (a Wildlife Biologist with NM Department of Game and Fish) “a few days prior” to September 29, 1977.  JPH goes on to say that on September 24, 1977:

“I was en route in our departmental truck with some of my fellow endangered-species biologists to work a pronghorn hunt on the Gray Ranch in Hidalgo County, when we saw” AS “driving onto the Hatch-Deming highway following his survey in the preceding range.” (Cooke's Peak)  “We spoke to him on our two-way radio and asked him if he had found anything of interest there, such as its "long lost" stand of these cypresses!  He replied in the affirmative and went on to tell us where they were found, which soon led to our visiting the site on an overnight stay in upper Hadley Draw on the 28-29th.  While driving up the draw on that first afternoon, I noticed an old  miner's cabin beside the road in the yard of which one or more rough-barked Arizona cypresses were growing -- leading me to surmise that it was either already there when the builder first arrived, or had been planted from local stock or its seeds. 

I also remember asking” AS “on the radio on the 24th if he had ever encountered Arizona cypresses growing in the wild elsewhere in New Mexico, and I am almost certain that he said "no."  This is a man who could keep up with bighorns in the field, and had combed the uplands of southern New Mexico searching for and studying them and their habitats, former places of occurrence, and potential transplant sites for several years.  This definitely included the Animas Mountains in Hidalgo County, where I had been unsuccessfully looking for Mearn's purported Arizona cypresses since November 1960 -- both on foot in the Indian, Bear, Pine, Black Bill, and Deer creek drainages, and once during an extensive aerial survey from a fixed-winged aircraft (i.e., a Helio Courier).

I first became familiar with the rough-barked Arizona cypress in the wilds of the Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona between 1957 and 1960 -- and later observed others growing in that state in such places as the Santa Ritas and north of Clifton on what used to be Highway 666, plus in the western end of the Sierra San Luis in Sonora.  Meanwhile, the smooth, reddish-barked form was noticed after its having long been planted abundantly in southern New Mexico (e.g., Silver City and a few in Glenwood), and locally northward to Albuquerque and in very protected sites in Santa Fe.  I have failed to find any rough-barked ones (wild or otherwise) in such places in this state as along San Francisco Valley, and in the Mogollon, Pinos Altos, Big Lue, and Big Burro ranges in the southwest.” 

Also on January 12, 2013, KA reported that “I went up Hadley Draw with” T. “back when he was working on the Cooke’s Range....I do remember seeing the trees on the trip.”

In a response to KA, RSP notes that “You remind me that there were, indeed, old planted cypresses at the townsite.” (Cooke’s Peak Townsite).  

TH to RSP and others, on January 14, 2013, summarized the email chain referenced above as:

the only known native stand of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico is located in the Cooke's Mt. Range, associated with the peak just north of Cooke's Peak.   This is just north of Deming, New Mexico.   This stand only comprises about 300 acres and is located between 7,000 to 7,450 ft. elevation.   From the attached picture you provided, they are clearly rough-bark Arizona Cypress.   This makes perfect sense with rough-bark cypress located to the south-east at Big Bend National Park and to the west at Chiricahua National Monument  (please correct me if the above is incorrect).

...My work with the cypress on the Chisos Mts. of Big Bend has shown that their cones are not serontinous (spelling?) as is often stated in books.   The mature cones of those cypress are dumping their seeds in the fall.  By mid-October ~85% of seeds had emptied out of the cones.   I suspect the same will be true of the Cooke's Peak Cypress.”

Replying to TH, RSP (January 14, 2013) identified the location of the Cooke’s Peak grove as “The eminence to the north of the saddle ("Cypress Ridge") is a long ridge with cypress all along the top (and better ones just beyond the top). Can't miss it, walking, for instance, north-northwest from the saddle. If one has binoculars and knows what one's looking for I think one can see the trees from the saddle.”  

Later that day, he followed up with:

“1.  The Cooke's Range cypresses are on both convex and concave surfaces.  But, unlike in the Chiricahua's, where the cypresses in concave bottoms are a thousand feet below those on convex uplands, at "Cypress Ridge" all are in a more or less unified stand, all upland. See attachment. The attachment's "valley" of Section 13 is not properly a valley but a steep wash dry 99.99+% of the time. The biggest, healthiest trees are just north of the ridge-top, under its protection, but there are also many smaller trees on top of the ridge. ("Protection" in the Southwest usually refers, as here, to protection of soils from excessive sunshine.) (I don't know in what part of the country you are.)

2.  Probably collectors should be warned away from planted cypresses in the old townsite in upper Hadley Draw. Likely they're from the native stand above the Draw, but we don't know.”

On September 27, 2014 TH emailed RSP and JH that: 

“At Cooke’s Peak townsite “we proceeded up on foot from Cooke’s town across a slope leading to the eastern knoll of the stand...We first saw dead trees at perhaps 6,900’, and then started running into live ones.  They were as you described, short and stunted, a Bonsai Cypress forest at about 7,000’.  Estimate approx. 40% of stand was dead.  Looked like in the last 5 yrs. bad heat and drought must have hit this area.  Did observe several seedlings about 12” or so tall, so some regeneration is now occurring.  The trees on the north slope appeared to be in much better shape, perhaps only 10% mortality on existing trees.  Of course they were taller also.

The trees all were C. arizonica, the rough-barked cypress.  Some of trunks must have exceeded 18” in diameter, regret that I did not measure that.  We proceeded across the saddle but did not go up the taller western knoll...We observed two anomaly cypress sites on way down...presumed they were the same population but planted by man at some point.

In responding to TH, JH wondered:

“why the noted botanical collector Charles Wright did not collect any Arizona cypresses in this mountain range, given that he and the rest of Col. James Graham’s U.S. Boundary Survey party passed through this area going to and coming from the Copper Mines (or Santa Rita del Cobre) in the summer and autumn of 1851?  In fact, neither he nor any other member of that survey collected any material of this species even in southeastern Arizona (e.g. Torrey, Botany of the Boundary, 1859:211), which is perhaps understandable in light of the fact that none of them appear to have penetrated its present range in that state (e.g., the Santa Catalina and Chiricahua mountains.)”

Apparently some seeds from the stand have been collected and propagated.  For instance, the Sooner Plant Farm and other gardening sites list a cultivar known as Cook’s Peak Arizona Cypress.  At the Sooner site he states that “I’m not sure how this plant got it’s name, but it was given to me by a friend nurseryman.  He said it was discovered at Cookes (Cooks) Peak, New Mexico.” 

In 2010, the Bureau of Land Management, published an Environmental Assessment for a prescribed fire over the entire Cooke's Peak Wilderness Study Area.  The report is quite clear that the purpose of the fire is to restore grazing lands that have been “encroached on” by woody vegetation.  The report notes five species of concern in the area of the proposed burn: Grayish-white Giant Hyssop, Agastache cana; Mimbres Figwort, Scrophularia macrantha; Night-blooming cereus, Peniocereus greggii variety greggii; Wright’s Campion, Silene wrightii; and Wright’s Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea wrightii.  Arizona Cypress is not mentioned as a species of concern in the report, although at page 16 (Section 3.12) the report states that: 

“There is a small stand (approximately 70 acres) of Arizona cypress (Cupressus arizonica) located approximately 2.5 miles north of Cooke’s Peak. This relict conifer woodland has been known since 1954 (Little, 1970) and was once known as the only definite locality of the species in the state of New Mexico (Columbus, 1988). Although that is no longer believed to be the case, this grove of Arizona cypress is truly unique to the area...The area around the stand of Arizona cypress would need to be protected from the burn. The stand would be evaluated to determine if the area needs to be handlined or blacklined prior to burning.” 

On February 25, 2016, Barnes was able to speak with Dr. Richard Felger of the University of Arizona Herbarium.  Dr. Felger is one of the premier botanist in the Southwestern United States.  He indicated that the Arizona Cypress specimens from the Gila and from the San Andres Mountains in the UNM collection were from human planted trees and that the only native population of Arizona Cypress in New Mexico was the Cooke’s Peak grove - and that “they were on the way out”.  

On November 20, 2017, Joe Malone provided this information:  "I just visited the Grove a few days ago and put up a YouTube video about it, you can probably find it just by searching for it on Google. I last visited it in 2014. The main population "hides" out from the sun under a North-facing escarpment where there are some very large trees, probably 80 feet tall at most. Aside from that, there are a few more in the wash that drains South of there, since water is really the only dispersal mechanism for cypress seeds. Likely this tree occurred more widely throughout the Cookes Range a thousand years ago and has become restricted to that small escarpment on the North side of the Ridge. Morphologically it is strange because this population has no resin glands on the foliage scales like most Arizona Cypress do and it has smooth pink bark, like the smooth bark Arizona cypress.”  


Summary

There are small scattered populations of Arizona cypress, Cupressus arizonica, in the American Southwest.  None of the populations are very large.  There are probably three populations of this species in New Mexico.  The population north of Cooke’s Peak was first discovered in 1954 by Sidney P. Gordon.  The population’s existence apparently was lost to the collective memory, although it was rumored to exist, until September 24, 1977 (or slightly before) when the grove was rediscovered by a New Mexico State Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist.  Since that time the grove’s existence has been generally known to specialists in the field (but a rather small group).  In 2013 there was a flurry of activity centered around once again “rediscovering” the site of the grove.  Most recently Barnes and Shaw have found trees of this species in the area and been near the area of the grove.  Specimens from the two other possible (probable?) sites for this species, in New Mexico, are at the UNM Herbarium but the sites may not be well documented (beyond the specimens).  

Footnote:

1.  Goggans, J. F. and C. E. Posey. 1968. Variation in seeds and ovulate cones of some species and varieties of Cupressus.  Circ. Agric. Exp. Sta., Alabama 160: 1-23




© Robert Barnes 2018